Literature Review


General Notes:

Step 1: Understand assignment. Select topic.

  • Read through and understand the assignment (from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).
    • Familiarize yourself with the purpose and features of a literature review (pdf from Academic Success Centre).
    • What is the scope of your review? How many studies do you need to find? How comprehensive should your review be? What types of publications (e.g., articles, books, government reports) should you include? How many years should it cover? These may depend on your assignment.
    • Contact your professor with questions; take advantage of your professor's office hours.
  • Select a workable topic. (video from University of Prince Edward Island)
    • Consider your specific area of study. Think about what interests you and what interests other researchers in your field.
    • Review your lecture notes to remind yourself of ideas or threads that sparked your interest.
    • Read through recent issues of journals in the field.
    • Try mapping your potential topics (video from UCLA) to find interesting subtopics or questions.
    • Consider limiting your topic to a specific date range, geographic region, population, or methodology.
  • Conduct preliminary investigation into topic using Google Scholar or other web searches to establish that literature on your topic exists.
  • Read several literature reviews in your area of study to serve as models.
Percentage of time on this step: 5%

Step 2: Find the relevant literature.

  • General strategies:
  • Search for literature relevant to your topic.
    • Write down 5-10 keywords about your topic including terms, jargon, events, people, and places to use when you search for sources. Add any new keywords you discover to your list as you go.
    • Use Find It or search subject-specific databases (e.g., education, psychology, health sciences) to find literature relating to your topic.
    • Consider whether books may also be relevant or key sources for your review.
    • Continue searching, trying different combinations of keywords, until you start to see the same results over and over again. This usually indicates that you have exhausted the literature.
    • Use citation mining to discover sources you may have missed in your earlier searches.
  • Keep careful notes so that you may track your thought processes during the research process.
Percentage of time on this step: 20%

Step 3: Read, evaluate, and analyze the selected articles.

  • Read to understand the article:
  • Read to determine which publications to include in your review:
    • How does this publication relate to the specific thesis or question you are developing? Your goal is to isolate or identify key themes or issues related to your own research interests.
    • Be sure to include studies that contradict or diverge from your point of view.
  • Read with a critical voice (video from University of Guelph). As you read, consider the following questions:
    • What were the authors trying to discover? Have they formulated a problem/issue? Is it clearly defined? Is its significance (scope, severity, relevance) clearly established?
    • Have the authors evaluated the literature relevant to the problem/issue? Do the authors include literature taking positions they do not agree with? If there are conflicting studies, theories, results, or methodologies, why do you think that is? What evidence or reasoning are the differences based on?
    • Do you agree with the authors' conclusions, and are they significant? Do the authors seem to make assumptions that may influence their findings?
    • Was the research funded by a source that could influence the findings?
    • What research methodology was used? Analyze the literature review, the samples and variables used, the results, and the conclusions. Does the research seem to be complete? Could it have been conducted more soundly? What further questions does it raise? Does anything important seem to be overlooked or missing?
    • How do the authors structure the argument? Can you "deconstruct" the flow of the argument to see whether or where it breaks down logically (e.g., in establishing cause-effect relationships)?
    • How are the authors viewed in the field? Has this study been cited? If so, how has it been analyzed?
    • What is the authors' research orientation (e.g., interpretive, critical science, combination)? What is the authors' theoretical framework (e.g., psychological, developmental, feminist)? What is the relationship between these research and theoretical perspectives? Could the problem have been approached more effectively from another perspective?
    • In material written for a popular readership, do the authors use appeals to emotion, one-sided examples, or rhetorically-charged language and tone? Is there an objective basis to the reasoning, or are the authors merely proving what they already believe?
    • In what ways does this publication contribute to an understanding of the problem under study, and in what ways is it useful for practice? What are its strengths and limitations?
  • Consider using a tool such as a synthesis matrix to help you organize your notes on each source. This can also help you organize your sources (the next step).
Percentage of time on this step: 25%

Step 4: Organize the selected papers by looking for patterns and by developing subtopics.

  • Typical organizing principles:
    • By theme: use when explaining key themes or issues relevant to the topic. This is the most common way to organize literature reviews.
    • By methodology (also called a methodology review): use when discussing interdisciplinary approaches to a topic or when discussing a number of studies with a different approach.
    • By chronology: use when historical changes are central to explaining the topic.
    • Note that any of these methods can be combined. For example, within each theme, you could organize your review by methodology or chronology, if appropriate.
  • Look for the following:
    • findings that are common or contested;
    • important trends in the research; and
    • the most influential theories.
  • Develop headings and subheadings that reflect the major themes or patterns you detected.
  • If your literature review is extensive, find a large table surface, and use post-it notes or note cards to organize all your findings into categories. Move them around when (a) they fit better under different headings, or (b) you need to establish new topic headings. (But be sure to secure them to the surface if you walk away, or at least take a photo - there's nothing worse than having to start over.)
Percentage of time on this step: 10%

Step 5: Develop a thesis or purpose statement.

  • Write a one- or two-sentence statement (from Indiana University Bloomington) summarizing the conclusion you have reached about the major trends and developments you see in the literature on your topic.
Percentage of time on this step: 2%

Step 6: Write your literature review.

  • Most literature reviews follow a similar structure: Introduction, Body, and Conclusion. Sometimes, though, you might need to add additional sections that are necessary for your study, but do not fit in the organizational strategy of the body. What other sections you include in the body is up to you - put in only what is necessary. Here are a few other sections you might want to consider:
    • Current Situation: Information necessary to understand the topic or focus of the literature review.
    • History: The chronological progression of the field, the literature, or an idea that is necessary to understand the literature review, if the body of the literature review is not already a chronology.
    • Methods and/or Standards: The criteria you used to select the sources in your literature review or the way in which you present your information. For instance, you might explain that your review includes only peer-reviewed articles and journals.
    • Questions for Further Research: What questions about the field has the review sparked? How will you further your research as a result of the review?
  • In the introduction, you should:
    • provide an overview of the subject, issue, or theory you've chosen as your topic;
    • state your reason(s) (i.e., point of view) for reviewing the literature;
    • summarize trends, conflicts, and gaps in the literature;
    • describe the scope of your review;
    • explain the criteria you used to analyze and compare the literature; and
    • provide reasons for excluding certain literature, if applicable.
  • In the body of your review, you should:
    • follow the organizational strategy you developed earlier;
    • use heading and subheadings to identify sections discussing themes, methodologies, or time periods;
    • select only the most important points in each source to highlight in the review - what you include should relate directly to the review's focus;
    • indicate the comparative importance of each piece to other studies through the level of detail provided (the greater its significance, the more detail provided);
    • explain how each work is similar to and how it varies from your stated position and other studies included in the review;
    • prioritize analysis over description (use your critical voice (video from University of Guelph) - summarize and synthesize sources within each paragraph and throughout the review;
    • keep your own voice front and center (pdf from Journal of Social Work Education);
    • use quotations sparingly - remember that this is a survey of the literature, not an in-depth discussion;
    • use citations (from PLOS Computational Biology) to support your position or interpretation;
    • use strong umbrella sentences (from Texas A&M University) at the beginning of each paragraph;
    • use signposts (from MLA Style Center) throughout to aid the reader in understanding comparisons and analyses; and
    • use brief summary sentences that address the so what? (from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) question at intermediate points, again to aid the reader.
  • In the conclusion (from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), you should:
    • summarize major contributions of significant studies and articles to topic, maintaining the focus established in the introduction;
    • evaluate the current "state of the art" for the topic reviewed, pointing out major methodological flaws or gaps in research, inconsistencies in theory and findings, and areas or issues pertinent to future study; and
    • conclude by providing some insight into the relationship between the central topic of the literature review and a larger area of study such as a discipline, a scientific endeavor, or a profession.
  • Get online or in-person writing support through UFV's Academic Success Centre.
  • Need a computer? Visit one of the campus libraries or a drop-in computer lab.
Percentage of time on this step: 25%

Step 7: Revise and rewrite; focus on content.

  • Look at the topic sentences of each paragraph. If you were to read only these sentences, would you find that your paper presented a clear position, logically developed, from beginning to end? The topic sentences of each paragraph should indicate the main points of your literature review.
  • Make an outline of each section of the paper and decide whether you need to add information, to delete irrelevant information, or to re-structure sections.
  • Ask yourself questions like these:
    • What is the specific thesis, problem, or research question that my literature review helps to define?
    • What type of literature review am I conducting? Am I looking at issues of theory? methodology? policy? quantitative research (e.g., on the effectiveness of a new procedure)? qualitative research (e.g., studies of loneliness among migrant workers)?
    • What is the scope of my literature review? What types of publications am I using (e.g., journals, books, government documents, popular media)? What discipline am I working in (e.g., nursing psychology, sociology, medicine)?
    • How good was my information seeking? Has my search been wide enough to ensure I've found all the relevant material? Has it been narrow enough to exclude irrelevant material? Is the number of sources I've used appropriate for the length of my paper?
    • Have I critically analyzed the literature I use? Do I follow through a set of concepts and questions, comparing items to each other in the ways they deal with them? Instead of just listing and summarizing items, do I assess them, discussing strengths and weaknesses?
    • Have I cited and discussed studies contrary to my perspective?
    • Will the reader find my literature review relevant, appropriate, and useful?
  • Make certain that all of the citations and references are correct and that you are referencing in the appropriate style for your discipline. If you are uncertain which style to use, ask your professor.
Percentage of time on this step: 10%

Step 8: Polish and put paper in final form.

  • Reread your assignment guidelines (if applicable) to make sure you have met all of the requirements.
  • Read your work out loud. That way you will be better able to identify where you need punctuation marks to signal pauses or divisions within sentences, where you have made grammatical errors, or where your sentences are unclear.
  • Edit and proofread (from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) your literature review carefully.
  • Check citations for accuracy and formatting.
Percentage of time on this step: 3%